July 9, 2014

"The Who & The What"

What does it mean to be a Muslim in a post-9/11 America? That’s the question the Pakistani-American writer Ayad Akhtar has explored in his Pulitzer Prize winning play Disgraced, his novel “American Dervish” and now in The Who & The What, the family drama that is running as part of the LCT3 series at Lincoln Center’s Claire Tow Theater through July 27.

The story this time out centers around Zarina, a young woman struggling to reconcile her devotion to the traditions of Islam with her dismay about their restrictions on women (click here to read about the author's inspirations for the play). 

The people closest to Zarina have developed their own ways of dealing with the discrepancies. Her younger sister Mahwish acquiesces to their father’s authority but is modern enough to give her fiancé hand-jobs. 

Their widower father Afzal, an immigrant who started off as a taxi driver and now owns a fleet of cabs, is steadfastly devout but also a loving parent who is proud of Zarina’s Harvard degree. 
Meanwhile, Eli, a convert to the faith whom Afzal thinks might be a good match for his eldest daughter, embraces a live-and-let-live approach. All are forced out of their complacency when Zarina writes a novel challenging the Quran and its interpretation of the prophet Muhammad’s relationship with his seventh wife.
The role of women in Islam is obviously a hot-button issue but The Who & The What fails to generate much heat. For while Akhtar is an engaging writer and some of the scenes, like the first meeting between Eli and Afzal, are entertaining, he also has a tendency towards pedantry, which is overindulged in this play. 

Too often the characters become symbolic avatars saying and doing things just to make a point and not because the words or action flow organically from who that person really is. Too often the situations in which they find themselves lack the tang of truth so that in the end, neither the who nor the what is wholly believable.
The production doesn’t help.  Akhtar’s frequent collaborator Kimberly Senior did an excellent job with Disgraced but she’s less confident with both the tone and pacing of this play, which runs nearly twice as long and hops around to several locales. 

The performances are similarly uneven. It's great to see actors of Middle Eastern descent getting the chance to play characters who aren't terrorists. But only Greg Keller seems to have found a consistent through line in his portrayal of Eli.
And yet, even though The Who & The What may have disappointed me, I'm sticking with Akhtar and looking forward to seeing his upcoming play The Invisible Hand, which has been scheduled for the new season at New York Theatre Workshop. 

Nobody bats a thousand. Disgraced, which is moving to Broadway in October, made my Top 10 list in 2012 (click here to read my review) and we've got to give promising young playwrights like Akhtar the room to experiment, and even to fail, without abandoning them.   


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